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Volunteer Lawyers Program - Housing


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Posted on: December 1, 2016

By: Vania Ming Tseng, Esq.

“I started volunteering at the Help Center in the Civil Court’s Housing Part of Kings County around three years ago. I started out my law career as a staff attorney at Queens Legal Services representing low-income clients with HIV or AIDS. The bulk of my practice consisted of representing tenants in Housing Court. After practicing for five years I went on maternity leave. During my leave my family’s financial situation improved and I decided to stay home full time to raise my daughter. (Three years later I had a son).

The answer is that the Volunteer Lawyers Program is the perfect program for the retired attorney who wants an opportunity to give back, and who welcomes the challenge of learning a new field of practice. I signed up for training, which was thorough and extensive, thanks to Yacine Barry-Wun's oversight. I went to several boroughs and spent a day in their Help Center. When I arrived in the Bronx, I found a Help Center administrator, Beverly Hudson, who was kind and welcoming and knew everything! I found two attorneys, Eva-Pena Roca and Isabel Bucaram, who were thoroughly professional and patient. And I started working- always secure in the knowledge that I could run the information and advice I was providing by the Court Attorneys for review. Eva recommended a treatise on New York City Landlord-Tenant law; I invested in a copy and began reading it on my subway commutes to the Bronx.

I decided to sign up for the Volunteer Lawyers Program because 1.) I missed the direct advocacy for people in need; 2.) I wanted to brush up on and use my legal knowledge in landlord-tenant law for public service; 3.) I felt it was important to engage in helping people instead of passively complaining about the problems facing my fellow Brooklynites. Volunteering at the Help Center has satisfied all those reasons beyond my expectations and thus has been a rewarding experience. Every time I volunteer it is not unusual to be faced with a challenging situation. I am always learning something new about the law. I feel fortunate because the staff attorneys that work in the Help Center are knowledgeable and always willing to answer any questions I have about the law. At the Help Center I have met people from neighborhoods all across Brooklyn representing ethnicities, nationalities, and races from around the world. Each person brings a unique and fascinating story, which keeps my experience very interesting.

Seeking housing stability is an intensely personal and emotional experience. Often people come to the Help Center seeking information or advice to get themselves out of a damaging situation. When I meet with people I try to empower them so they are informed of their rights and take proactive action.

I see a great need for the services of the Help Center. When I volunteer I am seeing people non- stop for several hours. I hope the Access for Justice Program is able to continue its important work in the New York State court system. I also hope that my small contribution makes some kind of positive difference.”


Posted on: December 1, 2016

By: Ann Elizabeth Lewis, Esq.

“In 2014, two years after I retired, I was investigating pro bono opportunities for retired attorneys. Well, in truth, I was totally content to pursue my artistic interests and my son, a civil rights lawyer, was urging me to put my legal skills to further use. I came across "Access to Justice", the umbrella title for volunteer programs run by the Civil Court . These programs actually train volunteers in areas of law that may be completely new to them. I was intrigued by the Volunteer Lawyers Program for Housing. But how could I, retired from a corporate law practice, primarily as an inside counsel and compliance officer, advise people in Housing Court about their road forward in difficult landlord / tenant litigation?

The answer is that the Volunteer Lawyers Program is the perfect program for the retired attorney who wants an opportunity to give back, and who welcomes the challenge of learning a new field of practice. I signed up for training, which was thorough and extensive, thanks to Yacine Barry-Wun's oversight. I went to several boroughs and spent a day in their Help Center. When I arrived in the Bronx, I found a Help Center administrator, Beverly Hudson, who was kind and welcoming and knew everything! I found two attorneys, Eva-Pena Roca and Isabel Bucaram, who were thoroughly professional and patient. And I started working- always secure in the knowledge that I could run the information and advice I was providing by the Court Attorneys for review. Eva recommended a treatise on New York City Landlord-Tenant law; I invested in a copy and began reading it on my subway commutes to the Bronx.

What is the work like? We don't represent people in court; we offer them the tools to represent themselves (and information on the resources that may be available to them). I meet parents who are desperate to evict their children from their apartment-and heartbroken to have to do so. I sit with them and find out the arrangements that they have had with their children in order to determine if a licensee holdover or prime tenant holdover will be the appropriate proceeding; and then I help them with the formal and daunting paperwork required to start a proceeding.

I meet responsible, long term tenants whose landlords have brought them to court without any hesitation or mercy when a loss of a job or even a temporary illness meant arrears in rent. Sometimes I can be effective just by describing the process required to evict a tenant- to make it clear that a tenant cannot simply be put out on the street because the landlord wants him or her out.

Owners of two and three family houses who have tried to give their tenants a break and become perilously close to losing their home and investment come to us when the tenant has given up any pretense of trying to pay the rent. With a few clarifying questions, I can help the landlords determine if they want to bring a non-payment case or a holdover. Sometimes, just listening and then telling people their legal rights is enough to fight despair.

Perhaps one of the best days was when a young lady came in at 4 PM, with an eviction notice and with an order to show cause (OSC) that had been denied, thus denying her more time to leave the apartment. With Eva's input, I drafted a new OSC, and an hour later the young lady appeared at our door with a new court order: "I have more time; I have more time, thanks to you!!" This was as meaningful a victory as any I had during my 40 year legal career.

I now work one to two afternoons a week in the Bronx Help Center and can do much of the Help Center work without assistance. But I always have the comfort of calling on the Court Attorneys and asking for their help or suggestions. As the need for help increases-and it surely will at this time in our country's history- I envision an army of older volunteers like me flocking to places like Housing Court and Family Court, taking their training and offering their services to desperate people. I wish there were no such need. But since there is, thanks to Access to Justice, for equipping us to help and finding us a place to serve.”


Posted on: September 1, 2015

By: Andres Edwin Valles, Esq.

"The Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) provides potential volunteer attorneys an opportunity to learn about Landlord and Tenant Law in New York City from very knowledgeable and nice court staff personnel of the New York City Civil Court Help Centers.

Even though I primarily volunteer in the VLP at the New York County Civil Court Help Center, I was fortunate to have volunteered at the Bronx County Civil Court Help Center for a short period. To become a volunteer attorney for the program, I attended the Landlord/Tenant Law Session of the Bridge the Gap CLE administered by the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program. The Landlord/Tenant Law Session, through its lectures and handouts, provided me with a basic understanding of the different kinds of legal actions that the New York City Housing Courts have jurisdiction over, such as a Non-Payment proceedings, Holdover proceedings, including Licensee and Roommate Holdovers, HP and Harassment Law Actions.

On my first volunteer date, I shadowed Help Center Court Attorneys for half a day at the New York County Civil Court Help Center. I watched the Court Attorneys provide legal information to unrepresented litigants who faced issues regarding Landlord and Tenant Law in New York City. Afterwards, I began to provide legal advice and information to unrepresented litigants on my own. At that time, I was very nervous to provide legal advice and information to litigants due to not knowing much about Landlord and Tenant Law in New York City. However, I helped the litigants to the best of my ability and when I did not know a legal question, I went to a Court Attorney or court employee to talk about the issue. The court staff of the New York City Civil Court Help Centers are a wealth of knowledge and friendly people. They provided me with the legal information and/or documents to read that would answer a legal question. During the weekends, I read handouts from the New York County Civil Court Help Center to learn more about Landlord and Tenant Law in New York City.

Over time, I learned to properly start a Licensee or Roommate Holdover proceeding, Non-Payment proceeding, HP Action and/or Harassment Law Action. Also, I learned to properly respond to such legal actions (e.g. filing an Answer to a Holdover Petition and Notice of Petition) or requesting compliance with an order and decision (e.g. filing an Order to Show Cause for Failure to Comply with an order and decision in a Non-Payment proceeding). This knowledge helped me to become more efficient in providing legal advice and information to litigants, which is great because I am able to help more people. The Volunteer Lawyers Program is a great opportunity for attorneys to learn about Landlord and Tenant Law in New York City. If a potential volunteer attorney is willing to commit many hours in volunteering for this program, he or she will likely be surprised by how much he or she has learned about Landlord and Tenant Law in New York City in a short period of time. I am happy to say that I experienced it."



Posted: November 18, 2014

By: Adam S. Waldbaum, Esq.

"My decision to join the Volunteer Lawyers Program is one of the best I have ever made. When I signed up for the initial CLE training in April 2013, I was just looking for an opportunity to fill some free time doing some pro bono work. I had a background in real estate law, so I focused on volunteering in Housing Court, but I didn't have much experience with landlord/tenant law and was nervous about whether I would actually be able to assist pro se tenants.

My fears were unfounded. The initial CLE program provided a great primer on landlord/tenant law (as well as consumer credit and divorce law). Although I was still a bit nervous the first time I showed up to volunteer, the court attorneys in the Help Center were very welcoming and quickly put me at ease. The Help Center staff is extremely experienced and knowledgeable – they made it easy for me to learn the nuts and bolts of landlord/tenant law and how to clearly convey that information to pro se tenants.

I thoroughly enjoy my time volunteering in the Help Center. Every day brings a different mix of people and cases that provide new challenges. Even after a year and a half I learn something new almost every time I volunteer.

Participating in the Volunteer Lawyers Program has also had a profound effect on my career. I have discovered that I enjoy landlord/tenant law more than the work I had been doing before I started volunteering. As a result, and with the benefit of connections I made while volunteering, I was able to get a new job with the Housing Court. Despite the new job, I still try and volunteer every week I am able because I enjoy the people at the Help Center and I feel a strong sense of fulfillment helping people navigate the court system."



Posted: April 25, 2013

By: Kahlil G. Winslow, Esq.

"My name is Kahlil G. Winslow, Esq., and I am a solo practitioner attorney who started practicing law after being admitted in 2010. I am a graduate of Brooklyn Law School. I started doing pro bono work (mainly in Kings County) because it served three primary purposes: (1) help those who otherwise would not have access to legal representation, (2) satisfy my free CLE training requirement, and (3) network with some of the brightest and sharpest minds in the legal profession of New York City. I am always glad to give my time and service to an underserved community. There are thousands of individuals throughout New York City, old and young, different backgrounds and ethnicities, who all desperately need assistance. They are scared and frustrated and often feel that they have no one in their corner to help them. So I make it my mission to be of service.

I find my pro bono work to be the most rewarding and enjoyable work I do. I have been working with the NYS Courts Access for Justice Program primarily in its Pro Bono Housing area for over a year now. I work with tenants advising them of the law and their rights; putting them into contact with legal services as well as government agencies. I help them negotiate settlements, prepare for trial, navigate the court process, prepare and file appropriate motions. Similarly, I work with landlords as well helping them start court cases and preparing petitions and helping them to navigate the court process. I know my job was done well when a litigant tells me that they were so glad that I was patient and took the time to help them."



Posted: December 12, 2011

By: Steven C. Teague, Esq.

“Scared would be an understatement to describe how I felt before my first day as a member of the Volunteer Lawyers Program in New York City Housing Court. I am a tad high strung to begin with, but, when at my interview, Yacine Barry, counsel to Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fisher, informed me that “if you can make it in housing court, you can make it anywhere,” I was forced to wonder exactly what I had gotten myself into.

Now that I have hopefully piqued your curiosity, let me provide you some personal information by way of background. Up until last spring, I was working at a Wall Street firm and—I must admit—was deeply unhappy. When I finally threw in the towel at my job, giving up on the legal profession also appeared imminent. Yet, I started shopping around for a new career only to discover, with the exception of waiting tables, that I was not qualified to do much else. I, therefore, decided not to give up practicing law for the time being and started searching for a volunteer position to bolster my then meager work experience.

Perhaps like you, perhaps not, I knew little to nothing about New York landlord/tenant law much less the goings on in housing court so after the above quote from Yacine, I was nervous. However, after watching the 8.5 hour CLE required of all volunteers, I was somewhat horrified. (I swear this testimonial will soon become an endorsement of the Volunteer Lawyers Program.) Landlord/tenant interaction in my home state of SC is pretty straightforward: Landlord does not like tenant, then he throws tenant’s personal items on the sidewalk and changes the locks. Landlord/tenant law in New York is immensely complicated, and I realized that the CLE training provided only touched the surface of what I would ultimately need to know to master the intricacies of nonpayments, holdovers, HP actions, rent regulations, federally subsidized housing, etc. I did not anticipate being able to be of assistance to any client, but, because I made a 12 hour commitment, I had no choice but to give it my best shot.

The first surprise during my experience as a volunteer attorney was discovering just how patient and complimentary the Help Center court attorneys were of me and the work I was performing. I was not used to seeing either of those qualities in the supervising attorneys I dealt with in the past. In the Volunteer Lawyers Program (compare to the Volunteer Lawyer for the Day Program), you work at the court’s Help Center where you are encountered with constant inquiries, typically by either tenants who have recently been served a Petition of Eviction or by disgruntled lower income landlords—largely roommates—needing to know their options in terms of eviction. Though a fair portion of your time as a volunteer would be assisting such pro se litigants in drafting Petitions (landlords), answers to Petitions (tenants), or varied notices and motions (both), most of your time is spent fielding questions. Often, at least initially, a client would ask me a question and I would instantly have to run to a court attorney, who, without sighing or acting otherwise frustrated, would provide me an immediate answer. What a welcome change from my past experience as an attorney.

The next surprise I found as a volunteer was that I never had to leave my comfort zone until I felt ready. My first days/weeks as a volunteer were spent assisting the Help Center court attorneys and building the confidence needed to take more clients on my own. Though I will not claim to have mastered landlord/tenant law—give me at least another decade—I can honestly say that I have learned enough to handle the bulk of my pro se clients competently with only limited assistance from my supervisors.

Finally, I am continually surprised to learn that it is possible to enjoy being an attorney. Yes, I have certainly learned what Yacine meant by her above description of housing court. For threat of losing their homes, clients are often quite intense—at times even mean. However, it’s in those moments when I am able to help even the most intimidating client either successfully draft an Order to Show Cause, or inform her of a subsidy that she had no idea existed, or just assure her that a Petition does not mean she will be homeless after her first court date that I am reminded of our profession’s value and why I chose to pursue it.

In summary, I have really loved my experience in the Volunteer Lawyers Program. And, though I cannot guarantee that you will find your experience as rewarding as I have, I can guarantee that if you put in the time, you will learn a great deal about an extremely intricate and interesting area of law, make great contacts, and have a good time in the process.”



Posted: December 9, 2011

By: Richard Landman, Esq., Attorney Emeritus

“After working for decades in the area of real estate development and academia, I wanted to use my legal skills to assist pro se litigants in understanding their rights in a face to face experience. It may sound corny, but assuring justice was the original reason that I went to Law School. Now that I was semi-retired, I wanted to fulfill the dreams of my idealistic self. But I needed confidence and more practical experience, and volunteering was the best way to gain these skills under a supervised setting.

That was when I learned about the Access to Justice Program in Civil Court and saw firsthand how great the need was to assist those without any legal representation. I never realized how many people faced evictions or unfair judgments without any legal help. The first step I took was to participate in the CLE courses to become a Volunteer Lawyer for the Day (in Housing and Consumer Credit), the Pro Se Litigant Help Center and DIY program, the Guardian ad litem program and in the Small Claims Arbitration program.

The knowledge and experience from each one of these programs (and my 30 years background knowledge of real estate, land –use law, and landlord/tenant law) played off each other. I was not only helping people to better understand their legal rights, but my legal competencies grew and I was being supervised. It was better than any college internship program around. It didn’t take long before I realized that I was getting more than I was giving.

For over two years I have been using my legal skills at the Pro Se Litigant Help Center once a week, and I found that my new knowledge was also very helpful at the LeGaL (LGBT Bar Association) Walk-In Clinic where I am the lead counsel every Tuesday. Thanks to these programs I have been able to not only refresh my legal skills; but have helped so many people who would have had no idea how to operate in a legal setting.

The need for legal assistance for lower income people is greater than ever, and I know that I have helped a little, but the main issue is that our society must increase funding to provide legal assistance to more people (so that volunteering is only one option). In the meantime, I feel like a band-aid, but an important one.”



Posted: March 14, 2006

By: David Patterson, Esq.

I’m on my way to the Civil Court’s Help Center, which is located on the first floor at 111 Centre Street. On my way in, in the waiting area, I notice a woman sitting down and crying. I proceed inside and say hello to Faith and Louise, the two full-time Court Attorneys who work in the Help Center and Zelda, the reception person. (Note: All names are fictional, except mine.)

“Do you know there’s a woman outside crying?” I ask. Faith says, "She’s scared stiff of losing her apartment. We’re helping her, but she wanted to have a couple of minutes alone, to compose herself.”

Louise says, “Oh, DP (my initials), we can also have you talk to her because she has some non-housing issues we can’t answer. Perhaps, since you are a general practitioner, you can give her additional information.”

Faith adds, “She lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, who moved in about two months ago. It’s her apartment, and she has lived there for around three years. Only her name is on the lease. Yesterday, her boyfriend hit her. She wants him to leave the apartment, but he refuses to go. We gave her the forms for the required predicate notice, notice of petition and petition, in case she decides to start a proceeding to evict him.”

I thought to myself that I knew exactly what this “predicate notice” stuff was all about, because the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project staff provided us with in-person training, and comprehensive, easily understandable, and extensive written materials during the 9-hour training in Fundamentals in Landlord-Tenant Law.

Incredibly, while we were being taught the skills to become knowledgeable in the landlord-tenant area, we also received CLE credit for the training courses we took. I remember thinking to myself that this is such a good deal. I was really surprised that more people don’t take advantage of it.

What is just as helpful, by the way, is that after undergoing the prerequisite training, Faith and Louise supervise us volunteers when we see people who come into the Help Center asking for help, and, in effect, help train us to competently and appropriately handle their questions. Only after I had acquired enough experience was I left on my own. Even now whenever I have a question, Faith and Louise are right there to answer it.

The woman who was crying, whose named turned out to be “Sarah,” came back into the Help Center. Louise asked me if I wanted to see if I could provide additional assistance to Sarah, and I went to speak to her.

After talking to Sarah, I learned that, sadly, this was not the first time her boyfriend had assaulted her. The good news was that she had finally decided to do something about it. As I also practice in the criminal law area, I knew enough to be able to inform Sarah that she could go to the local precinct and make a complaint against the boyfriend, whose name happened to be “Punk Kid.”

If the police believed a crime had been committed, they would arrest Punk Kid. When he went before a judge, that judge would probably issue an order of protection. This order could bar the boyfriend from coming anywhere near Sarah or her apartment. I also provided Sarah with the numbers of a couple of agencies that provide services to battered women.

Sarah also stated that she got behind on her rent, because Punk Kid had never contributed any money towards the household and rent. Faith gave Sarah a list of various charities that provide money to pay back rent under certain circumstances. Louise noted that the listed charities might well be sympathetic to a case like Sarah’s and also provided her with information about how to get similar financial assistance from New York City’s Department of Social Services. As long as Sarah could show she could pay her rent prospectively, these agencies might well be able to help her.

As Sarah left, she said, to no one in particular, “Thank you so much. You guys are my angels. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here.”

It was getting to be the end of the day and time to go home. Louise, Faith, Zelda and I looked at each other, knowing full well that we had done some good today.

I find that providing legal counseling is an enjoyable experience because 1) you get a chance to relate to “real people with real problems” 2) you REALLY get to utilize your legal skills and training, by identifying the critical legal issues among the mish-mosh of emotions and details provided by the person seeking assistance 3) you get the chance to REALLY help people, in a way we thought we might when we first decided to go to law school; 4) you get to enjoy a unique feeling of satisfaction, particularly when you see that sense of desperation slowly draining from someone’s face, only to be replaced by the recognition and hope that her problems really can be successfully addressed; and, perhaps most importantly, 5) unlike your regular clients, Help Center clients won’t call you twenty times in the next week seeking a different answer to the very same question, because, once you see them at the Help Center, your work with them is complete.

For the more practical among us, volunteering at the Help Center also provides participants with additional perks, including 1) having the opportunity to network with Court Attorneys and other volunteers; 2) getting training in the Landlord-Tenant Law area; 3) receiving excellent written materials, as well as in-person training; 4) having the opportunity to continue to learn, from full-time Court Attorneys, like Faith and Louise, with substantial expertise in this area of the law; and 5) even getting free CLE credits while you’re doing all this other good stuff.

So, what more can you ask for? I know you might have been thinking about doing pro bono work for awhile. Now, you have an ideal opportunity to translate these thoughts into action. So, join Housing Court’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project Team, and help us have a good time while we’re providing a much needed service.

David J. Patterson
Volunteer Attorney